Grit And Grind: How The Dragons Have Stunned The NRL
The St. George-Illawarra Dragons are 4-1 and 4th on the NRL ladder through five rounds.
As the most popular pre-season pick for the wooden spoon, they've exceeded expectations to win four on the bounce with their last two played while Ben Hunt sat on the sideline. It's been an incredible start to what most people thought would be a dire season.
Anthony Griffin's signing to replace the much-maligned Paul McGregor was met with varying degrees of optimism and outrage. In hindsight, Griffin is the sort of coach the Dragons need right now.
He is said to leave a lot on the cutting room floor during video sessions. It becomes evident when his sides inevitably stall and fail to take the next step (think: 2018 Panthers), but the Dragons aren't up to that step. As favourites for the spoon, the 2021 season is their first step in what is still likely to be a lengthy rebuild.
Griffin has hand-picked a few players (mainly former Broncos from his days in Brisbane), shuffled around others and rallied all those remaining from McGregor's tenure to piece together a tough, gritty and disciplined football side.
Their plan is to nail the basics, wear the opposition down, and stay in the fight for long enough to create enough opportunities and pile up points.
The Dragons aren't forcing the issue or desperately searching for points despite what their fifth-ranked 25.8 points per game suggests.
They rank 15th in general play passes per Fox Sports Lab. They've not adopted the wide-ranging shifts many other sides have done this season. While Josh Jackson, Isaah Yeo, Nathan Brown, Jake Trbojevic, Tyrone Peachey and Cameron Murray all average over seven passes per game as they ball-play through the middle wearing the #13 jersey, Dragons lock Tyrell Fuimaono has passed the ball six times all season.
Instead, the Dragons take the hard road.
Their 80.6 one-pass hit-ups per game is the sixth-most in the NRL. While other teams search wide, turning big bodies on the edge underneath a more common action within the Dragons attack. It's not going to break down the top tier defences of the NRL, but nobody expects them to hang 20+ on the Panthers, Storm or Rabbitohs.
Tariq Sims has recaptured his form on the edge following a disappointing 2020 season. Moving Josh Kerr to the edge had its issues early, but the 197cm and 112 kg forward has played a key role for the Dragons at both ends of the ground. He's a massive body who has helped in exit sets while defenders near the goal line can't ignore his size.
Paul Vaughan has been leading the pack through the middle with his 151 running metres per game while a rotation of Blake Lawrie, Poasa Faamausili, Trent Merrin and Daniel Alvaro keep the pressure on around him.
Andrew McCullough has been excellent for Griffin. What he lacks in speed, the veteran has made up for in his craftiness around the ruck. McCullough wouldn't fit every side right now. He does, however, slot nicely into Griffin's direct style with the ball in hand with the former Bronco and Knight directing traffic close to the ruck and becoming the chief decision-maker in Hunt's absence more recently.
Luckily for Griffin, his outside backs are all capable of individual brilliance given the lack of shape they play with at times. Zac Lomax is in career-best form and is forming a deadly partnership with Mikaele Ravalawa on the right side. While Cody Ramsey hasn't been presented with many opportunities and Jack Bird has missed time, the left edge is developing nicely. Bird, in particular, appears to finally be comfortable in a defined role after a rough spell with the Brisbane Broncos.
Topping it all off and providing the much-needed spark, Matthew Dufty has five tries and two try assists already this season. He doesn't find himself sweeping round to the outside of his back-rowers quite as much as other fullbacks in the competition. Instead, he chooses to use his long cutout pass to varying degrees of success. Having Kerr running at an opposing half throws the defensive line into disarray allowing Dufty to pick his poison on the right side: Short to Kerr or long to Zac Lomax and Mikele Ravalawa. He has had similar success with Bird on the left side too.
Dufty's frailties in defence mean he's always a risk of being a net-negative in any given game. His cut-out pass can result in rather long droughts when the defence is planning for it. However, Dufty is the golden boy within this overachieving Dragons attack so far this season.
The Dragons have done all of the right things to get where they are through five rounds.
Footy fans don't like to hear about luck helping their team. It isn't easy to quantify with an eye patch on. But while the Dragons have exceeded expectations and played genuinely good football over the last month, there has undoubtedly been an element of luck involved.
Playing historically bad Sea Eagles and Cowboys sides is luck of the draw. The Dragons definitely benefited from the Knight's misfortunes when three-quarters of their spine limped off the field in Round 4. Luck happens in sports and it's not always easy to identify.
So, as I sit here with humble pie on my face (yes, I caved to the general consensus and tipped the Dragons to come 16th too) I don't think I'll be spreading it as far as finals footy given the good fortune they've faced to start 2021.
The Stats Insider Futures Model has the Dragons at 49.9% to still be in the Top 8 after Round 25. Their place in the Top-8 appears to be the only one under threat with the Sharks (37.2%), Knights (33.1%) and Warriors (32.2%) the most likely teams to challenge them.
The Model has also signalled that the Dragons have the sixth-hardest remaining draw.
As they start to play tougher teams and those tougher teams are presented with more video to pore over in the week leading up, the Dragons will struggle to score at the rate they are now. Their current 18.8 points conceded per game is likely to rise too.
The Dragons have started 2021 exceptionally strong. They've all but removed themselves from the wooden spoon conversation with three wins already. But this doesn't look like a fairytale in the making. Although, it's a promising start to a story Griffin could be part of for a lot longer than the two years he's currently signed.
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